In an extraordinary and ironic twist, Phyllis Wise, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign chancellor who fired Steven Salaita, is now saying that the university’s board of trustees has breached her rights and her employment contract.
Wise’s growing misfortunes are an indicator that doing the dirty work of Israel lobby groups and donors may not always be the smartest move for ambitious college administrators.
On Wednesday, university trustees rejected an agreement where Wise would resign as chancellor and receive a $400,000 payoff.
She had announced her resignation on 6 August, the day before the university revealed that she and other senior personnel had for months been using personal email addresses to discuss Salaita and other controversial university business in order to evade public disclosure laws.
In one of the released emails, Wise apparently admitted to destroying evidence relevant to Salaita.
Instead of letting her resign, Wise was reassigned from her role as top administrator of the Urbana-Champaign campus to become the university president’s advisor on biomedical affairs. Meanwhile, the board announced it had commenced dismissal proceedings.
Wise fights back
Wise is fighting back. In a statement to journalists on Thursday, she refused her reassignment and said she had tendered her resignation again.
She denied that her secret email ring had “illegal intentions or personal motivations.” She claimed at all times to have acted “in what I believed to be the best interests of the university.”
Making clear that she wasn’t going to be the sole scapegoat, Wise said that “many of these same communications included campus counsel, board members, and other campus leaders.”
She also suggested she wasn’t going voluntarily. “On Tuesday,” she said, “I acceded to the board’s and the president’s request that I tender my resignation. In return, the university agreed to provide the compensation and benefits to which I was entitled, including $400,000 in deferred compensation that was part of my 2011 employment contract.”
By denying her this, Wise said, “the board reneged on the promises in our negotiated agreement and initiated termination proceedings.”
“This action,” she said, “was unprecedented” and “unwarranted.”
“I had intended to finish my career at this university,” Wise stated. “Instead, I find myself consulting with lawyers and considering options to protect my reputation in the face of the board’s position.”
(Update: Since initial publication, the University of Illinois accepted Wise’s second resignation. The Chicago Tribune reports Wise will immediatelyl begin a one-year paid sabbatical at $365,354. When she returns she will become a tenured professor in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology with a salary of $298,926. She will not get the $400,000 bonus. Her salary as chancellor had been $549,000.)
The irony could hardly be greater. Though the merits of their cases may be different, Wise, like Salaita, is now accusing the university of breaching a contract and acting in bad faith.
The tragedy for Wise is that she cared not a jot about Salaita’s reputation or career when she acceded to the demands of pro-Israel donors, organizations, media and of Christopher Kennedy, the chair of the board of trustees at the time, by executing Salaita’s unprecedented and unwarranted firing.
I watched Wise at the 11 September 2014 university board meeting coldly ask trustees to reject Salaita’s appointment, already knowing – as the secret emails indicate – that they were likely breaching his contract.
And she was moreover willing to use her complicity in that infamous act to advance her own interests, particularly the controversial college of medicine initiative funded by private and corporate donors.
Eleven days after that board meeting, Wise wrote an email to Stephanie Beever, a senior executive at the Carle Hospital, which Wise was courting for a $100 million contribution for the joint project (see below).
“I had been thinking about writing to you to apologize for the faculty who embarrassed the university by their speech and their behavior,” Wise wrote. “I am glad that you know me better than to believe some of the things I was accused of.”
At the time, Wise was facing mounting criticism, including votes of no confidence from a growing number of university departments.
The emails show time and again that Wise, while trampling on shared faculty governance, overruling the autonomy of academic units and disdaining the concerns of students, was always deferential and abject before corporate bosses and big donors.
Sitting in the board room last September, surrounded by Salaita’s supporters in the public gallery, Wise must have felt sure that defying them and doing the bidding of those above her was the safe path to success.
She could not have been more wrong.
For all her service to power, Wise is learning the hard way that when you’re no longer needed, you can be discarded and scapegoated.
While Wise’s case is the most high-profile, she is not the only university administrator to pay a price for doing the bidding of pro-Israel interests.
Nicholas Dirks was the vice-president for arts and sciences at Columbia University in the early 2000s when the anti-Palestinian group The David Project launched its intense witch hunt against Professor Joseph Massad, who did not hold tenure at the time.
I summarized Massad’s case in my book The Battle for Justice in Palestine.
Massad was accused of all the typical transgressions: anti-Semitism and bullying students with pro-Israel views.
Dirks headed the faculty investigative committee appointed by the Columbia president to inquire into the charges.
After the months of inquisition to which Massad was subjected, the Dirks committee concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated and there was no evidence of anti-Semitism.
That did not stop the vilification of Massad by pro-Israel groups and media, but what is instructive is how Dirks leveraged the attacks on his colleague for his own profit, as I also explained in my book.
In November 2012, Dirks was named as chancellor-designate of the University of California, Berkeley.
The UC Berkeley news office published a video interview with Dirks, “recorded shortly before the Regents approved his appointment,” in which he attacked Columbia.
He singled out the Middle East studies department, claiming it had been “very difficult” for “some students to find safe spaces in which to talk about Israel where they didn’t feel that the basic context in which they found themselves wasn’t hugely not just anti-Israel, but by implication, anti-Jewish, and anti-Semitic.”
Dirks boasted of the role he played in the witch hunt against Massad. “It was my responsibility as the executive vice president for the arts and sciences” to convene “an unprecedented faculty committee to look into some of the allegations that had been made.”
He also repudiated a petition he had signed in 2002 calling for divestment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and other companies that supplied military hardware used by Israel against Palestinians. “Truth is, I do not support divestment as a strategy for the university. I don’t support divestment with respect to Israel,” Dirks affirmed.
He offered Israel’s most ardent supporters at UC Berkeley every assurance that they had nothing to fear from him.
Dirks’ comments outraged his former colleagues at Columbia. Fourteen members of the faculty of the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, including Massad, published a letter condemning him.
“Our sense of outrage stems from Dirks’ denial of the fact that the very committee set up by then-Vice President Dirks found no evidence whatever for concerns about the climate for Jewish students let alone about the nature of instruction in our department,” the letter stated.
“We feel affronted by the fact that the Chancellor’s defaming the department means that he now rejects the committee’s finding and seems instead to accept as true the false accusations leveled against us by an external hate group that has since been exposed and discredited.”
Stifling free speech
Dirks, notably, was one of the college administrators who in the wake of Wise’s firing of Salaita under the banner of protecting “civility,” openly sided with those who sought to stifle free expression.
In a message to his campus last September, Dirks declared that “we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility.”
As Massad noted, Dirks might have been “the first university leader to declare solidarity with the University of Illinois and threaten the uncivil on his new campus with dire consequences.”
Dirks’ statement caused alarm among academics across the country and earned him widespread ridicule.
Dirks undoubtedly bought himself a more lucrative job by throwing his Columbia colleagues and former friends under the bus. But he also gave up a great deal of respect he might have enjoyed as a colleague and an academic.
He exposed himself from the first day to the students and faculty of his new institution as someone who will put pandering to the powerful before serving and protecting them.
That may have been worth it for Dirks. But many in academia may look at him and what is happening to Phyllis Wise and decide that the growing cost of prostrating oneself before intolerant, authoritarian pro-Israel groups and donors is not a price worth paying.
It must also be said that institutional administrators’ exaggerated fears of defying Israel lobby demands may also reflect what author and academic Sarah Schulman calls “a weird kind of anti-Semitism.”
“It seems that they hold clichéd and stereotyped beliefs about punitive rich Jews who will pull out their Jew-money if anyone criticizes Israel,” Schulman said about the New York LGBT center’s ban on hosting Palestine-related events in 2013, “and it was this misguided prejudice that led them to defensively ban any criticism of Israel.”
Reflecting on the power of the Israel lobby in 2006, Massad pointed out how “anti-Semitic attitudes in Congress (and among university administrators) play a role in believing the lobby’s (and its enemies’) exaggerated claims about its actual power, resulting in their towing the line.”
The same may well apply to Wise, who bent over backwards to accommodate meetings with pro-Israel donors angered about Salaita’s hiring in the days before she fired him.
For all this drama, Steven Salaita’s job and rights have still not been restored and the chill on free expression that many feel on campus has not lifted. But in significant ways, the tide is turning.